Donald Trump’s successful campaign relied on a combination of his public appearances plus constant social media engagement. Photo: Evan Vucci Illustration: Andrew Dyson
The election of Donald Trump broke new ground in the way information has been used and abused, presenting a historic challenge to the media.
Few moments highlighted this better than when Trump – confronted with the fact that the Russians had hacked his opponent Hillary Clinton – invited the Russians to hack Clinton some more.
Trump later brushed off the outrage by claiming he was only being sarcastic.
But the impact of the stream of emails on Clinton was real. Now there is a President-elect, with a demonstrated hostility for the media, who will bring to the White House a web of potential conflicts of interest between the world of business and governance. Murky relationships and unanswered questions about ties to foreign leaders abound.
The challenge to the media now extends to a Trump presidency; four years in which corruption or the potential for corruption can eat at US government and society.
The media have been criticised for taking Trump literally but not seriously during the campaign, while his voters took him seriously but not literally. But real news runs on facts. Without them, reporters are reduced to speculation.
If the media are going to support and defend the openness and accountability a law-based society depends on, they need hard facts to work with.
To get those, they need to adapt to the new reality of the information age and the way Trump’s campaign exploited it.
For the first time since the early 1960s, a presidential candidate has refused to divulge his taxes to the public during the campaign.
The potential conflicts of interest behind the billionaire-turned-president are historic in scale.
In this world, the media should consider a limited, surgical hacking of Trump to learn about his financial holdings, especially as they relate to foreign companies, leaders and governments.
I’m just kidding, of course.
But no reasonable observer can claim the public doesn’t have the right to know who Trump is in bed with financially, who he owes and who owes him, and how this influences the decision-making of his presidency.
Simply being outraged by the little that is known is not enough.
It’s also not the place of the media in the 21st century.
Crusading, activist journalism doesn’t make up for a lack of facts to report, Russian-American author Masha Gessen says in discussing her experience of authoritarian Russia.
The prospect of hacking – both its effect on the election and its potential for clearing up some of the mystery of Trump’s wealth, holdings and international relationships – speaks to the broader effect technology is having on the relationship between the presidency and the world.
Trump’s successful campaign relied on a combination of his public appearances plus constant social media engagement. It was fed through an army of online partisan supporters, networks of bots, and pushed and defended by trolls – some based far outside the US.
They themselves were only part of the alternate digital reality constructed with the help of Breitbart, racist alt-right activists, propaganda, misinformation, outright lies and possibly even some moderators on Reddit.
If the fact-seeking media are feeling outgunned in this world, it may be because Trump’s support relies on networks that have cut the media out of the loop.
The problem will only get worse. As it does, both Trump backers and Obama backers will find even their opponents’ legitimate victories harder to believe.
The media, confronted with the new digital reality, seem to be unsure of how to proceed. Cover all of Trump’s statements, as has been the protocol of days gone by? Or cover none because words often don’t mean what they say?
There is no substitute for hard facts.
Hacking Trump’s financial documents – just joking, folks – would not only uncover the scope of the President-elect’s conflicts with the international business world, it would put the media on a more equal footing with Trump. This is important in a democracy.
Of course, hacking the president to gain information which is legitimately in the public’s interest could lead to a whole set of new problems.
For example: is it possible to limit such an action? What would be off-limits? Would this be the new normal? Would it set the US and other liberal democracies down a slippery slope to lawlessness? Or is this the new way of the world?
The ethical, political and legal ramifications multiply outwards in many directions, almost calling for one of those media talkfests the industry seems hooked on.
But navel-gazing, introspection, self-flagellation – this isn’t what the media need now. Aggressive reporting that never reaches the minds of the uncritical masses won’t help much either.
In this world, reshaped by the internet, the media must adopt new thinking.
How new? If the public and the media mirrored the Trump campaign’s messaging approach, it might work like this:
Rather than The New York Times, Washington Post and other major outlets just competing with each other for big scoops, they would also coordinate with each other to maximise the respective exposure each outlet gets. When one outlet had a revealing story, the others could work to help amplify it, taking a patterned approach, until the White House fully addressed the issue reported.
In this climate, the media would be wise to concentrate on any potential wrongdoing and not get distracted by what is simply new and unprecedented about a Trump White House.
In this new information reality, such media efforts wouldn’t be confined to US outlets, either.
Trolling on behalf of Trump was globalised. Fair reporting for liberal democracy can be, too.
Individuals who support responsive democratic government – anywhere in the world – would then jump onto social media, tweeting every criticism of Trump’s actions, boiling down every aspect of his conflicts of interest into catchphrases, hashtags, ideas and even memes.
They would coordinate their messaging, too. Like Trump’s fans, they would create a digital culture around their political identity.
Those running vast networks of bots would program them to re-post material about the relevant story or topic, reflecting the latest development. They don’t call it “computational propaganda” for nothing.
And those who support liberal democracies – in which any problem that can be measured and understood can be addressed by a government that has the consent of the governed – would become advocates for such values in politics.
The liberal values crowd can confront those who have disappeared down a rabbit hole of irrationalism, which, to be fair, has been made more attractive by the unequal experience of globalisation and free market fundamentalism.
These defenders of liberal democracy would understand that in this world, it’s not simply the truthfulness of the message but the volume, velocity and momentum with which it is delivered that make all the difference. This realisation matters for a free press in the 21st century charged with reporting honestly and insightfully about a shadowy billionaire with authoritarian tendencies who happens to be President of the United States.
It’s a big challenge. And frankly, it may be much more a technical than a journalistic one. But the fate of democracy depends on it. So it’s worth acting on it now. That is an idea I mean seriously. Literally, too.
Chris Zappone is a Fairfax Media foreign editor.
Follow Chris Zappone on Facebook